Separating Parents where Drugs and Alcohol Are Involved

Separating Parents where Drugs and Alcohol Are Involved

Any separation or divorce is going to be difficult and painful for the whole family however amicably the split is dealt with. Unfortunately, though it is all too common that alcohol or drug misuse is a major contributing factor or the reason for the breakup. What we want to cover in this blog post is the way that mediation can help the family move forward to allow for contact to be possible and regular for the children with both parents. Each situation is different, and the level of the misuse can vary. Of course, in some situations, children will have been removed and placed into care by social services before any separation of the parents has occurred. These are severe cases and are dealt with by the courts, so mediation is not a relevant option in these situations.

Child Arrangement Disputes
As family mediators we have helped many separated parents to find resolution to child arrangement disputes. When alcohol and drugs are prevalent in the home the mediation needs to be run in a different way. Often, the situation after separation, is that one parent will refuse to allow the other parent contact with the children due to their addiction and volatile behaviour. The breakdown of the relationship is usually caused by the addiction which has brought about many issues including financial strain, unreasonable behaviour, unpredictability with care of the children and sadly in some cases there is violence and abuse. For children to live with this in their home is the cause of long-term emotional issues and a tendency for them to use alcohol and drugs themselves later in life.

Psychological and Emotional Effects For Children with an Alcoholic Parent
The alcoholic is usually under the misconception that their drinking habits do not affect anyone else and their main priority is always where that next drink is coming from. The child will not know any other type of ‘normal’ life and as they grow up they will only have their parents as role models, if one or both parents are heavy drinkers, alcohol is a ‘normal’ way of life in the family home and alcohol use has been ‘normalised’. Here are some of the effects on children who live with an alcoholic parent:

  • Children will struggle to distinguish between good and bad role models. For example, they will not know that a drunken shouting parent is not a good role model and that is not how people should behave.
  • Trust issues – If denial, lies, and broken promises are the norm at home, these children will never have the capacity to trust anyone as they have never experienced honesty.
  • They will often adopt approval seeking behaviours to avoid conflict or an angry confrontation.
  • Harsh self-judgment is also likely, as often the alcoholic will blame everyone else in the household when things go wrong. The child will blame themselves for the angry abusive behaviour and believe it is their fault.
  • Fear of abandonment – if an alcoholic parent has been physically or emotionally unavailable to their children, they will always fear being alone due to not being good enough. Later in life they may hold on to an abusive or toxic relationship for fear of being alone.
  • Anxiety – this is very common in children with high conflict parents but even more so where a parent drinks excessively. The child lives in a constant state of anxiety not knowing what the day will bring. Will the parent be angry abusive or violent that day?
  • Embarrassment – children with parents who are always intoxicated will not want to bring friends home after school for fear of what situation may arise.

We have written before about the effects of conflict between parents on their children, these are only heightened with alcohol and substance abuse.

Working Out The Arrangements for the Children After Separation
Depending on the circumstances and the extent of the substance abuse, working out arrangements for the children is not going to be straight forward if one or both parents are inebriated. One of the main effects of alcohol is that it causes heightened emotions and loss of the ability to judge a situation. The alcoholic will often not remember arguments or occurrences from the day before or in the past.

As an example, a father who had been having regular contact with his children since the divorce suddenly found himself banned from seeing his girls by the mother who believed his drinking whilst he was looking after the children had become dangerous. The father had absolutely no recollection of throwing his daughters out of his house whilst in his care. He could not remember why he had become angry with them and was confused the next morning when they were not with him. Luckily, the mother had been alerted and had come to pick them up.In this situation clearly the mother is not going to want the children going anywhere near their Dad but upon sobering up he wants to see them and is full of remorse and regret.

How Can Mediation Help?
Mediation sessions can work well if both parties are willing to listen and acknowledge the other’s side. In the situation described above where the trust has been broken, we would focus the mediation sessions on how to move forward with practical solutions to the issues. Whilst we will acknowledge the past events and the reasons for the breakdown in trust and communications, we would not focus on those – only on how to move forward positively.
For example, what do they need to do to make contact possible? There could be practical steps and suggestions to help build the trust again for the father to prove he is making positive steps towards changing himself for the better and addressing the addiction. Part of the agreement for making contact with the children possible again could be for him to:

  • Join AA or another substance abuse support group and attend regular meetings.
  • See a councillor, therapist or psychiatrist.
  • Be breathalysed before having contact with the children (with no overnight stays to begin with).
  • Start with supervised visits only at the family home or arrangements can be made through a contact centre with full supervision.

Can We Help You?
As experienced family mediators we have years of experience helping all types of families with different issues and reasons for conflict. We help separated couples and their children to move forwards positively with compromise and agreement. If you would like help or advice to see if mediation can help you in your situation, please do call us on 0788 903 9393.

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